The New Jersey Devils have been one of, if not the most consistent organizations in the National Hockey League for nearly two decades. But, last summer that all changed when inexplicably the organization broke their own successful mold by signing Super-Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15 year, $100 million contract. The change in philosophy was a shocking deviation from the norm for the usually financially tight-fisted club. In fact many believe it was the primary underlying cause in New Jersey’s fall from the ranks of the NHL elite.
When the Devils acquired the fleet-footed Russian prior to the trade deadline many believed it was a desperate attempt by the organization to bring the Stanley Cup back to New Jersey. Rumors swirled that GM Lou Lamoriello was forced to sign Kovalchuk to improve the teams attendance and marketability by adding such a high caliber player. After all, Kovalchuk isn’t exactly a typical Lamoriello guy. For much of the first half Kovalchuk struggled to find his game. First year head coach John Maclean was unable to use Kovys’ skills properly and as a result he was shockingly unproductive. His 20 points and an un-Devil like +/- (-26) in the teams first 36 games had critics jumping out of their seats to dismiss him and blast Devils management for their costly blunder. On the other hand many made excuses for the team and Kovalchuk, blaming Maclean, blaming injuries, blaming Lamoriello.
But, at about the time Maclean was finally and mercifully canned, Kovalchuk caught fire. Lamoriello went back to an old friend to help save his team. Once Jacques Lemaire took over, he reigned Kovalchuk in and taught him how to play within the Devils system. Kovy proceeded to put up 40 points with an even +/- in 45 games. He led the Devils second-half resurgence with 9 game winning goals including many in dramatic fashion. His detractors turned to supporters and soon fans and critics alike embraced the Devils most intriguing player.
Despite the excitement Kovalchuk and the Devils generated in their incredible climb to respectability, the bottom line was they missed they playoffs and Kovalchuk had the worst statistical season of his career. The Devils are invested in Kovy for the remainder of his career and fully expect a reasonable return on that investment. The 31 goals and 60 points last season were Kovalchuks’ lowest since his rookie season, 10 years ago and not exactly what upper management was gunning for when they opened their checkbook for him. New Jersey is banking on the $100 million man returning to $100 million form next season or heads may roll, Jersey style.
Lemaire was able to get Kovalchuk to do something other coaches had tried but failed at, to be defensively responsible. The problem is, Lemaire retired again after the Devils final game and this time he’s not coming back. The real trick for Lamoriello is to bring in a coach that can get the All-Star to respond as Lemaire did. The increased attention to protecting his own end must not waver without Lemaire. Kovalchuk must cut down the amount of time he turns the puck over per game. All too often a “Kovy cough-up” ended up in the back of the Devils own goal. Kovalchuks’ teammates appear to like him a lot but if he tries to force plays like he did many times this past year they may grow impatient with him and that could lead to a slew of other issues. Kovalchuk is a gifted scorer and it’s inevitable that he will put up points but at what cost?
It will be interesting to see if the Devils turn it around next season and even more interesting to see how big a hand Kovalchuk has in it. If the team struggles again next season there won’t be any more excuses just a lot of finger pointing and you can bet most of those fingers will be pointed at Kovalchuk and his contract.
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No More Excuses; Devils’ Kovalchuk Must Be Better Next Year
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